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U.S. cables on Mexico: Unprepared for a drug war?

December 3, 2010 |  9:15 am

Bodies monterrey drug war mexico

Freshly dumped secret diplomatic cables from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City reveal that top American advisers to Mexico's government have been dismayed by that nation's efforts to dismantle powerful drug-trafficking groups, Tracy Wilkinson reports in The Times.

The cables suggest an active and close cooperation between U.S. and Mexican anti-drug authorities, and a sense that high-profile victories against the drug organizations are believed necessary to maintain support among the Mexican public for the drug war. The cables praise Mexican President Felipe Calderon for attacking the cartels "head on" but offer a frank assessment of an overall unpreparedness for the complexities of the task among Mexico's civilian and military institutions.

The four-year conflict has left at least 30,000 dead. Meanwhile, narcotics continue to move almost unabated into the United States and the death tolls rise daily.

Mexico has had a handful of arrests and killings of "high-value targets," but more substantive victories are difficult to obtain as the country's justice system, intelligence infrastructure, and military remain far from achieving "modernization," the cables show.

Here's a breakdown of key findings in two of six new U.S. cables from Mexico, released Thursday by the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

Doubting the Merida Initiative

In an October 2009 cable describing a dinner attended by officials from Mexico's attorney general's office and other agencies, plus their counterparts from the U.S., one Mexican official admits that "not enough strategic thought went into Merida in the early phase," referring to the multiyear aid package the U.S. has promised Mexico to fight the drug groups.

By this point in the drug war, fall 2009, more than 11,000 had been killed. Yet officials in the cable appear to be batting around ideas on how to change perceptions about the effort -- while admitting that Mexico's intelligence infrastructure is not up to the task.

"We would be pleased," one U.S. official said, "in the effort to press High Value Targets, to get our Mexican counterparts to the point where they can do these things themselves."

Issues with Mexico's military

In a January 2010 cable on the inauguration of a "Defense Bilateral Working Group" between Mexico and the United States, authorities bemoan tensions between Mexico's large army and its smaller, more effective navy. A plan is suggested to "help Mexico institutionalize civilian law enforcement capabilities and phase down the military's role in conducting traditional and police functions."

The cable is drafted in the face of mounting human-rights claims against the army, particularly in Ciudad Juarez, where Calderon dispatched soldiers to take over policing, only to draw back the military forces earlier this year after the spike in abuse claims -- claims made "with considerable basis," the U.S. officials admit at one point.

"Military personnel have been accused of a range of abuses, such as forced disappearances, rape and robbery, even extrajudicial killings," La Plaza reported in October.

As recently as August, Calderon pushed back at critics of the military, saying soldiers would "remain on the streets" until the end of his term in 2012 (link in Spanish). Calderon's government has suggested creating state police forces to replace municipal police forces in an overall plan to eventually remove the military from its current role in the drug war.

The January cable goes on to say that the Mexican military is "ill-equipped for a domestic policing role," has "a long way to go toward modernization," and that what is "[needed] most is a comprehensive, interactive discussion that will encourage [the army and navy] to look holistically at culture, training and doctrine."

Meanwhile, the drug trafficking organizations -- or "DTOs" -- are regarded as a formidable foe.

"The DTOs are sophisticated players," the cable says. "They can wait out a military deployment; they have an almost unlimited human resource pool to draw from in the marginalized neighborhoods; and they can fan complaints about human rights violations to undermine any progress the military might make with hearts and minds."

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Two shooting victims near Monterrey, Mexico, on Wednesday. Credit: Associated Press